Pride Month: Knoxville’s History with LGBT Hate Crimes

Greg McKendry
Greg McKendry

*This is the third installment of a month-long series addressing different topics related to Pride Month, presented by guest writer Oren Yarbrough. You can find part one here and part two here.

You cannot discuss the history of a person or place without all of the facts – good and bad. I have read wonderful and uplifting stories I will continue to share for you over the coming weeks, but as I have also discovered quite a few incidents of hate and discrimination that hit close to home for me as a Gay man living in this community. Not that long ago in this city, LGBT men and women were at risk of being attacked and seriously harmed or killed, and the muted community response was usually silence and indifference or defense of the attacker simply because the victim was homosexual.

It is still common today in many developing nations for women suspected of being lesbian to be raped, sometimes by a large group of men in public, in an effort to “cure” her of the affliction. Gay men are commonly murdered and lynched in the streets by mobs after being baited into revealing their sexual identity to the wrong person. Transgender people around the world face extreme danger, with many hiding their identity in order to find work or a place to live. Sadly, this also happens in the United States, though less frequently and, thankfully, with less brutality in recent years. Today’s article tells the very real stories of hate crimes toward the LGBT community in East Tennessee and Knoxville. Many of the victims in this article are no longer with us and I intend, by telling their story, to honor their memory and raise awareness, love and compassion for all people of Knoxville.

On July 27th, 2008 I worked the church rush as a host at the Applebee’s on Kingston Pike. Working that shift for over a year, I had developed a good relationship with the regulars, often chatting with them about school and life and working to seat them with their preferred servers. Around noon a number of guests at different tables became loud, some women among them beginning to cry. Sensing something big, I approached a table and asked what had happened, maybe expecting something bad had happened elsewhere in the world. One of the elderly women told me there had just been a shooting at a nearby church and people had died.

Linda Kraeger

This was the first I heard about the shooting at the Tennessee Valley Unitarian Universalist Church. While not a direct attack on the LGBT community, I feel it is important to share this story to illustrate that even our allies can become victims for defending, loving and accepting us. The Unitarian Universalist Church, from 1970, has welcomed people regardless of sexual orientation and was the first denomination to openly accept transgender people, having the first transgender person ordained by the UUA in 1988. The Unitarian Universalist church has performed same-sex union ceremonies since 1984 and became an advocate for marriage equality in 1996. The Tennessee Valley location of the Unitarian Universalist Church has been an outspoken advocate for the LGBTQ community for decades, regularly hosting local organizations and meetings for various non-profits and outreach programs in East Tennessee.

This is the kind of open and loving church community that sat down one Sunday to watch a children’s performance of the musical “Annie Jr”. Shortly after the show started a man charged into the main sanctuary firing a shotgun at the 200 people in attendance. The first victim killed was Greg McKendry, a church usher who moved in the way of the gunfire to protect the people around him. The second person to be killed was Linda Kraeger, who died later in the day from her wounds. Seven others were wounded by the gunfire or in the act of taking down and restraining the shooter. The heroic actions of John Bohstedt, Robert Birdwell, Arthur Bolds, Terry Uselton, & Jamie Parkey ended the violence when they charged the shooter, disarmed him and held him down until the police arrived. If not for them, the outcome could have been much worse. The shooter, a fanatical conservative who blamed liberals for all the worlds’ problems, had 76 rounds of ammunition on his person when he was arrested.

The shooter, Jim Adkisson, targeted TVUUC because he felt they represented everything that had become worse about the United States. Adkisson planned to be killed during the attack, leaving a 4-page hate-filled manifesto, in hopes of martyring himself for his extreme political views. Blaming Democrats, liberals, African Americans, and homosexuals for ruining the country, Adkisson believed they should all be killed. The manifesto included a list of one hundred individuals he felt should be eliminated because of their political views and efforts. The attack was investigated as a hate crime by the federal government and Jim Adkisson pled guilty to two counts of murder and wounding 6 others. On February 9th, 2009 he was sentenced to life in prison without the possibility of parole.

In the weeks after the attack many Unitarian Universalist Churches held vigils and special services to honor the victims. On August 3rd, 2008 the TVUUC was rededicated in a ceremony held at the church and presided over by former UUA President and TVUUC paster, Rev Dr. John Buehrens. A week later on August 10, 2008, the UUA took out a full-page ad in the New York Times with a message that said, “Our Doors and Our Hearts Will Remain Open.” Later, the TVUUC voted to rename the church greeting hall after victim Greg McKendry and the church library after Linda Kraeger.

The following list includes descriptions of a handful of other hate crimes I discovered in my research for this article. I assure you that my list is incomplete, but I fell we needed to start somewhere.

Joseph Camber

Joseph Camber – In April 2002 Joseph Camber, a local bartender, activist, and Pride organizer in Knoxville, went to the Carousel 2 to celebrate his birthday with a group of friends. Hours later Camber’s body was found in a nearby parking lot; he had been strangled to death with such force that his larynx had been crushed. Thankfully, DNA evidence in Joseph’s fingernails were able to lead investigators to the arrest of Chad Conyers.

Conyers claimed the death was a tragic accident during sex with rough foreplay. Facing a 15-year jail sentence, a plea deal with Knox County DA office, he was freed on parole with the possibility of expunging the charges if he didn’t break the law for four years. Friends and family of Joseph Cambers were outraged that the DA refused to prosecute Conyers and for the extremely lenient punishment. Many felt it was because the victim was gay and the crime was framed as an “act of passion.”

Conyers moved back to his hometown of Virginia Beach and was eventually arrested for soliciting sex in a public bathroom and being a “peeping Tom”. While the circumstances of his arrest in Virginia highlight the continuing police practices of baiting gay men in sting operations, it at least brought a second opportunity for justice in Cambers death. Knoxville Judge Baumgartner reinstated Conyers’ original 15-year sentence, but it was reversed by a Knoxville Appeals Court and he was allowed to once again return to Virginia a free man. This crime is particularly troubling because it follows a pattern of indifference and victim shaming by investigators and prosecutors that is very common.

A quote attributed to Frank Cagle of the News Sentinel was referenced in multiple articles about Cambers murder. I think it reflects the feelings of anger that existed in Knoxville at this time.

. . . Considering the lack of an outcry over this case, one can only conclude that the district attorney general’s office knows its community. But it is worrisome when prosecutions depend on the lifestyle of the victim, (and) the degree of public interest. . . . Any homophobes in Knoxville who plan to carry out an assault on a gay man should take note: If there is a chance he will die, have sex with him first.

Joseph Weir – The owner of downtown gay bar Europa and a retired hairdresser in West Knoxville was a well-known member of the LGBT community. He was also an outspoken critic of the city’s efforts to push out undesirable businesses from downtown, including Gay Bars, in an effort to “clean up” the city for the World’s Fair. Weir was found stabbed to death outside his home in late 1981. His wounds and other evidence suggested he had been attacked both inside and outside the home and that he had fought his attacker. A car and some small valuables were missing, but many other valuable items remained inside the house, leading the police to believe that the motive may have been an unplanned robbery or a date gone wrong. Joseph Weir’s murder remains a cold case.

Francine Wilson
Francine Wilson aka Frank Wilson

Francine Wilson – Francine Wilson was a well-known Drag Queen and performer at the Carousel 2 in the 1980’s. Francine, aka Frank Wilson, was found strangled to death in his home sometime in the 1980’s.

Byron Barker

Byron Barker – A well-known hair stylist in Knoxville in the 1990’s and early 2000’s, Barker went missing in 2005 and his remains were not found until 2008 when they were found in a field in East Knox County. Initially, the main suspect was Barker’s shampooer at his salon (name withheld) who was accused of selling a number of Barker’s possessions following his going missing and was also alleged to have deleted all of his and Barker’s common email history. The murder continues to be listed as unsolved.

Sampson McGhee & George England – George England and Sampson McGhee were attacked and shot in December 2003 by Josh Anderson at a home in North Knoxville, killing McGhee. Josh Anderson and Timothy Canady invited McGhee and England to their home late one night under the guise of hanging out for a possible hookup after meeting outside West Knox News. When England felt uncomfortable attempted to leave, Anderson pulled a gun on the two men and demanded money. McGhee continued towards the exit and Anderson shot him twice in the chest, prompting England and McGhee to flee the home toward their car. At trial, Timothy Canady agreed to a reduced sentence in the attack in exchange for testifying against Anderson and was sentenced to 40 years with the possibility of parole sometime this year. Convicted of robbery, premeditated murder and attempted murder of England, Joshua Anderson was sentenced to life without parole.

Phil Wells

Phil Wells – This last instance is not really a hate crime nor did it officially take place in Knoxville, but the community was left extremely shaken over the murder of Phil Wells. Previously a bartender in Knoxville at Club XYZ, where he dated club owner Tracy Kauffman, he moved to Las Vegas in October of 2010 and became a bartender at a gay bar called The Garage. Kauffman flew to Las Vegas in November of 2011 with a handgun in his checked luggage and went into The Garage and shoot Wells, hitting him at least 15 times in the back and head. Kauffman changed his clothes and threw them and the gun into a nearby dumpster and watched a garbage truck empty it before leaving. Kauffman was arrested hours later at the airport trying to fly back to Knoxville. In 2012 Tracy Kauffman was sentenced to life with the possibility of parole in 20 years plus 8 additional years for gun charges.

Not all hate crimes in Knoxville over the years were murders. In fact, many crimes against the LGBTQ community, viewed as minor, have been lost to time because of earlier frequency and due to the lack of evidence or a desire to pursue an investigation. In the 1980’s a can of tear gas was thrown into the Carousel 2 while it was at full occupancy, with over 200 people inside. In 1991 arsonists burned the Aids Response Knoxville office to the ground and no one was ever charged. From the 1970’s into the 1990’s it was especially dangerous to walk in Fort Sanders enroute to the Carousel 2, with many individuals reporting being threatened and chased and having things thrown at them by angry strangers.

Jacob Carpenter

A common practice for gay men attending Knoxville gay bars decades ago was to wait in the parking lot until at least 3 or 4 other cars had pulled up beside you in order to enter with a bigger crowd for safety. Just two years ago, Jacob Carpenter, who was a Pride Ambassador for UT, was walking in Fort Sanders heading back to his dorm on UT Campus when he was tackled from behind and beaten by three unknown men. The attackers ran when they realized there were witnesses and Carpenter was left bruised and cut on his face and ear.

It is also worth mentioning that transgender people remain more vulnerable than the larger LGBT community. In the United States 26% of all Transgender people have lost a job due to their identity, with almost 50% admitting they have been harassed in the workplace. According to a survey by the National Center for Transgender Equality, around 19% of Trans people have reported abuse or violence from a family member when they revealed their gender non-conformity. According to the Williams Institute there is an estimated 700,000 persons living in the United States who identify as Transgender or gender non-conforming. In 2011 the National Transgender Discrimination Study revealed that 41% of persons surveyed had attempted suicide at least once in their lives.

According to the Tennessee Bureau of Investigation, hate crimes across the state increased by 10% from 2016 to 2017, with 200 crimes reported throughout the state. According to the report only 15% of the crimes reported during this time were directly related to LGBT individuals, making a total of 30 cases. While small, the number of total cases is still very high for a place that the general public thinks is otherwise tolerant and welcoming. The fact that the numbers of hate crimes in Tennessee have significantly increased in recent years is troubling. It is also worth noting the breakdown of populations victimized by hates crimes in 2016-2017: African Americans 38% Persons with Disabilities 18% LGBT Persons 15% Religion (Anti-Muslim) 10%.

Next week is the official Knoxville Pridefest with the parade starting at 11AM downtown and the festival continuing at Mary Costa Plaza beside the Knoxville Coliseum until 9PM. In recent years I have witnessed an increase in the size and aggression of protesters. It has been announced that a larger group of White Nationalists are planning to protest this year’s festivities. Still, Pride organizers have prepared accordingly, and Pride remains a safe place for all of Knoxville’s citizens to attend and celebrate the LGBTQ community. I personally want to stress the necessity for the Knoxville community to show the anti-LGBTQ protestors that we are an inclusive and loving city that supports our relatives, friends, and neighbors no matter the differences between us.

One of the best moments to come from last year’s Pride was a video of members from the DC & Knoxville Gay Men’s Chorus’ surrounding the protesters and singing very loudly to drown out their chants of hatred. The video made international news. You can see it, above.

Let us show that Knoxville has no room for hate, but only love. Happy Pride Month Everyone.